I'm hunkered down in my condo in Key West at the moment, awaiting the arrival of what promises to be Hurricane Isaac. All of the preparations and anticipation have opened a floodgate of memories from when I survived Hurricane Camille, a category 5 storm, in 1969. Isaac is expected to become a Category 1 storm by the time it impacts Key West, roughly 26 hours from the time of this posting.
The following is from an article that I had written for the 30th anniversary of Camille, and published in Weatherwise Magazine in 1999. It provides a great insight into the development and anatomy of a hurricane. Not only may you find it informative, but I also truly hope you find it to be an enjoyable accounting of one young man's experience as he awaited orders to the war in Vietnam.
August 5, 1969
An extreme heat spell in western and north-central Africa has created a giant atmospheric heat pump. Superheated air rising off the Sahara Desert begins its natural westward drift toward the Atlantic Ocean. Reaching the Gulf of Guinea, it tumbles over the cooler coastal air and creates a disturbance in the upper atmosphere. Meteorologists studying satellite photos of the African coast note the appearance of an inverted “V” cloud formation-a developing tropical wave.
I can’t believe it’s August already. Just 30 more days and it’s “good-bye” Keesler Air Force Base and Biloxi, Mississippi. Should’ve gotten my orders by now. This wait is killing me. A great big world out there, and I’ll probably be sent to some mud hole in Vietnam. For what? Hell, I’m only 20-too young to die.
Hey, the Woodstock rock festival is this month. Now that’s where they can send me. Fat chance, though. Gosh, where has the year gone? Life here in the Gulf Coast has been great: boating the backwaters, walking the miles of beaches, and napping beneath the tall, swaying palms.
Most of all, I’ll miss the weekends sleeping under the stars out on Ship Island. The slow and easy southern lifestyle Biloxi has made me feel welcome and safe, but, the island is where I’ve felt most at peace, away from the real world. I wish the war would end. I hate the thought of leaving here.
August 9, 1969
The tropical wave quietly drifts westward. Four days after conception, the storm embryo is already dumping heavy rains on the Leeward Islands as it moves into the warm water south of Cuba. Finding a nice, warm womb, the hurricane embryo quickly grows into a strong and healthy fetus.
The local forecast calls for hot and clear. Perfect weather for the island; the girls at the Fiesta Club will just have to do without us tonight. Gerry and I pack a cooler full of snacks and drinks, and as much camping supplies as will fit into our backpacks. We catch the early ferry to Ship Island for a weekend of sun, surf, and suds.
Late in the afternoon, the last ferry makes its seven-mile journey back to the mainland. The 500-yard-wide, seven-mile-long strip of grass-capped , white dunes now belong to us and a small group of adventures who choose to distance themselves. Massive Fort Massachusetts calms any fear of being washed away in the night. The red brick fortress has withstood weather and war for over 200 years.
We kick back to watch the blazing sun sink into the sea. It slowly sets to the rhythm of pounding surf and the satisfied sighs that naturally accompany sipping ice-cold beer. It’s time to enjoy life, to feel free, to go skinny-dipping.
The time spent here is special to both of us. With each breath, we inhale life fully while we still can. The skies are expected to remain clear the entire weekend, but in the backs of our minds we are haunted by the dark cloud looming over our futures.
August 13, 1969
Satellite photos from the previous four days show the storm clouds progressively curving into concentric spirals as the storm system continues to develop and strengthen.
The heat and humidity are unbearable this week. Just stepping out of the shower, I begin to sweat. I’m going through two uniforms a day. Evenings offer no comfort. The air is hot, sticky, and motionless, despite the constant running of huge ventilation fans on top of each stairwell. The whirring vibrations of the fans compete with WC-130 aircraft engines revving on the flight line. The plans are coming and going more than usual-must be a storm out there somewhere. The constant vibrating roar only adds to the discomfort from the heat.
Desperation sends a few of us to the rooftop hoping to find a hint of breeze. Maybe here we can get some sleep. White rocks, inches thick, cover the roof to reflect the sun and cool the building by day. Soon, to our disappointment, we discover how well they radiate the heat back into the air at night. We return to our hot rooms. Later, with every window open, I lie sleeplessly, sticking to wet sheets, staring at the ceiling and praying for wind.
August 14-15, 1969
WC-130 aircraft from the Air Force’s 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron fly repeatedly into the strengthening storm and monitor its development south of Cuba. The crew measures an air pressure of 999 millibars, and surface winds at a steady 55 m.p.h. The storm fetus appears to be at full term. The tropical storm moves northward out to sea at 9 m.p.h. By nightfall, internal air pressure drops to 964 millibars and surface winds exceed 74 m.p.h. Delivery time.
On the afternoon of Thursday, August 14, 1969, a brand new Category-1 hurricane is officially born into the North Atlantic hurricane family. She is names Camille. Camille races through her childhood, becoming an adult hurricane in one day. With 115 m.p.h. sustained surface winds, this Category 3 hurricane brushes by the western tip of Cuba, leaving three people dead. Residents along the U.S. Gulf Coast begin their vigil, all eyes turned seaward.
Today marks the greatest gathering of young people in history: hundreds of thousands of voices crying out to end the senseless war. Can they make a difference? Damn, I’ve just got deal with here and now, before I bum myself out. Best shift gears to the footloose weekend mode. Mail room? Check. Shower and dress? Check. Wallet with cash? Check. Okay, it’s off to the Airmen’s Club to meet the group, then off to the beach to the Fiesta Club. I’ve done this dozens of times, but it’s somehow different now, knowing I’ll have to leave soon.
Gerry and I head off to the Airmen’s Club. His brother is stopping by tomorrow. His first assignment is at a post in Georgia, and not “you-know-where” (we decided not to mention it anymore). This, we agree, is reason to celebrate.
At the club, talk centers around the rock-and-roll “happening” in upstate New York. Some guys we know out in for leave and were turned down. Talk is that they wanted to go so bad that they went AWOL. Guts or not brains? We can’t agree. One thing we do agree on is that we are green with envy over those who were able to make it to Woodstock, and drink a series of toasts to them.
Talk shifts to the storm out over the Gulf. I assure my friend from the heartland that there’s nothing to be frightened about. I boast of weathering several hurricanes on Long Island. After all, they’re nothing compared to tornadoes. You lose a few trees here and there, lose power for a while, and maybe the beach gets screwed up a little. After a few days, everything is back to normal. Absolutely nothing to worry about. As talk of the storm continues, a pack of cigarettes is passed around the table. I’ve never smoked, but find myself lighting one.
August 17, 1969
Hurricane Camille continues inhaling energy from the warm Gulf of Mexico waters. On August 16, a WC-130 crew clock her winds at 160 m.p.h. at aircraft flight level, pointing to further strengthening of this already Caegory-5 hurricane. The last reconnaissance flight of the day records Camille’s pressure at a near-record low of 905 millibars. Her estimated surface winds of about 200 m.p.h. are among the highest recorded this century. A killer hurricane now looms off the southern U.S. shores.
Camille’s forward speed increases to 14 m.p.h. as she approaches the Gulf Coast. Local radio and television stations stop regular programming. Civil defense and local government officials repeat messages stressing the life-threatening severity of the approaching storm. The tone of the messages becomes increasingly somber and more urgent. All local residents are to evacuate immediately. Late reports now confirm the small, but intense storm has near tornado-strength winds pushing a 20-foot wall of water ahead of it. Though the National Hurricane Center still predicts landfall on the Florida panhandle 100 miles east of Biloxi, with each passing hour, Camille creeps steadily westward.
Today is peaceful and very quiet, as Sundays usually are in Biloxi. Last night, Gerry, his brother Chuck, and I had dinner at Baricev’s and enjoyed an evening of live music at, of course, the Fiesta Club. We attempt to take Chuck on a nicklel tour of our favorite hangouts at the beach, but the steady rain makes for a miserable time.
We hear on the car radio that a long, hard rain did not dampen youthful spirits at Woodstock, which is going amazingly well in its last day. We notice the Ship Island ferry is missing from the pier, as are most of the boats normally moored there. The only activity along the beach seems to be people boarding up windows. The traffic on Highway 90 is heavy with cars and trucks packed full and high. We wonder where everyone is headed.
By late afternoon, the rain is driven by gusting winds, so we abandon the tour and return to base. The flight line is deserted. The dozens of training aircraft usually parked there are gone. What are we supposed to do? Soon, the official word comes. With storm landfall predicted to occur far to the east of us, we will not be evacuated. We are restricted to our dorms until morning, or until further notice. Under no circumstances, no matter what, are we to leave the building.
By 9:00 p.m. Sunday evening, it becomes frighteningly clear that Biloxi will be hit hard by Camille’s powerful winds and storm surge. Are we safe here? Had our commanders underestimated the potential threat? One thing is certain – we are stuck here, no matter what. The base is barely 10 feet above sea level. Out building will surely be among the first hit. Only two city blocks of homes and a raised railroad grade stand between us and the Gulf of Mexico.
Close to 9:30 p.m., the wind begins blowing harder. For safety, airmen from the top two floors crowd together with us on the first floor. Mattresses line the hall floor and walls. Extras stand ready to pull over the top to form a protective tunnel if we’re threatened by building collapse. In each room, more mattresses are buttressed against the windows to stop flying debris. We put fresh batteries in our flashlights. We can think of nothing else to do to protect ourselves, so we stand waiting in silence as the sound of the wind gets louder. The wait seems endless.
A terrifying, angry shriek announces Camille’s arrival. The deafening scream seems to come from everywhere. My heart races wildly as the building takes its first strike. The sheet metal sheds housing the ventilator fans over the stairwells are among the first casualties, torn completely off the building. Loud crashing continues as the large metal objects become airborne and smash into who-knows-what. No one has to be told to get under the mattresses,
The sound of glass shattering in all directions joins the screaming wind and crashing debris, followed by what sounds like thousands of bullets striking the outer concrete walls, but are actually stones Camille has sucked up from the rooftop and contemptuously spat back. The lights go out. We are in total darkness. With flashlights we can see the wind-driven rain down the stairwells. Water blows in under the seaward door with such force that it chips paint off the opposite wall. Can the building take it? Camille shows no mercy.
Within moments we are completely cut off from the rest of the world. There is only static on the portable radios. What’s happening out there? We are helpless and trapped. The sense of uncertainty is overwhelming. I stand motionless with my back against the wall. A wave of fear crashes over me as I realize that I might be killed. Someone nearby is sobbing in the darkness. Someone else panics and tries to get out of the building. There is a brief scuffle as the screaming airman is tackled and held down.
Water flows heavily down the stairwell and gushes in beneath the doors, flooding the lower level. With a new rush od adrenaline we form a bucket brigade. For the next two hours, by flashlight, we pour countless buckets into the toilets and shower drains. The effort seems hopeless; but the feverish activity keeps our minds off what might happen next. The entire cement block building starts to throb rhythmically from the pounding wind, water, and flying debris. Expecting it to come crashing down at any moment, we drop the buckets and take shelter in the mattress tunnel.
Then, just as suddenly as it began, the screaming stops. The building is still. The wind diminishes to sporadic strong gusts. In the eerie silence of the remainder of the night, we stay close together on the mattresses. Wet, exhausted, and overwhelmed, no one moves or speaks. It will be sunrise soon. I try to sleep and not dwell on what horrors the light of dawn may reveal.
August 18, 1969
What had begun as a warm, gentle breath from Africa, in only 12 days became a catastrophic natural disaster. Camille might have been nothing more than a developing weather phenomenon drifting the oceans.
Instead, at 10:30 p.m. on August 17, 1969, when her screaming winds and crushing waters crashed onto land, she claimed her place this century in the U.S. Atlantic hurricane history: second in storm intensity, 10th in cost ($1.4 billion), and 11th in deaths (143 people confirmed dead on the coast, an additional 68 forever missing; 113 flash flood deaths inland; also dead: 8,000 cattle and unknown numbers of domestic pets).
Dawn comes too soon. It’s peaceful and calm – the air still, the sky above clear and blue, and out to sea are big, billowing white clouds. To the east and west of the base, however, the Gulf Coast looks like a war zone. Destruction fits one of two categories: demolished or gone.\
What has happened to my beloved Biloxi, my tropical paradise? After one black night of wet, howling terror, it has become a wasteland. Where has her hospitality gone? People who were so friendly yesterday, are looting stores and stealing from one another today. Fights are breaking out around the only working gas pump, and at least one person has been shot. The National Guard has arrived and imposed a 6:00 p.m. curfew.
Along the beach, ships and boats litter the roads, yards, and tops of remaining buildings. Sand and a few scattered cinder blocks are all that remain of the Fiesta Club. The sigh and a couple concrete walls are still standing, but Baricev’s restaurant, where we ate dinner two nights ago, is gone.
The homes of hundreds of families now form miles of unrecognizable debris, in some places washed up twelve feet high. The ruins closely resemble the seaweed lines left along the beach at low tide; but what a tide this must have been. Looking in the direction of Ship Island, I see the dark silhouette of Fort Massachusetts against the white clouds that touch the horizon. The old fort survived. But there now appear to two islands; Camille has sliced right through the center of Ship Island.
There’s no time to fully comprehend what has happened to us. We must quickly search the wreckage fro survivors. Soon, though, we realize we are only locating the bodies of victims, or what is left of them; faceless and dismembered. Everywhere the smell of rotting flesh fills the hot, humid air.
Day after day we uncover and remove victims from the tons of debris. And it it all too clear Camille made no distinction between humans and animals when choosing her victims. Chain saws roar relentlessly, day and night. Each day just rolls into the next. For weeks we keep working to the point of collapse – keep digging…keep moving debris…in a shock-driven frenzy to put everything back to the way it was before Camille.
Damn it! I loved this place. Now it’s destroyed. I suppose I should be grateful just to be alive. Though marred forever by this horror, I still have many great memories to take with me. Camille could never erase them. I’m so tired now, and so ready to leave. Vietnam can’t be any worse than this.
For more by this writer, visit:
The Orangenous Zone